Hamas’ stances/Israel, the Arab world and Iran
Aug 12, 2010
Update from AIJAC
August 12, 2010
Number 08/10 #03
This Update features some new material on Hamas, its goals and its efforts to control Gaza. And it also has an important and detailed look at the increasingly complex relationship between Israel and the Arab states in the face of the Iranian hegemonic threat.
First up is a new report on Hamas from the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, an important Israeli think-tank. The Centre analyses the latest statements from Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, and what they reflect about Hamas’ strategy toward Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the West. Among other things, he rejects any current negotiations with Israel, direct or indirect, rejects any future recognition of Israel (which he calls the “Zionist entity”), seeks relations with the West but rules out any effort to meet the Quartet principles, arguing the West will eventually be forced to see the need to cooperate with Hamas. For this look inside Hamas’ world view, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Alex Fishman of Israel’s largest circulation paper, Yediot Ahronot, looks at Hamas’ rule of Gaza and especially a recent spate of killings of Palestinians accused of collaboration with Israel and a propaganda war against “collaborators”. Fishman points out that Israeli experts believe this is a sign of weakness and insecurity, not strength, given the lack of Hamas achievements in other areas – despite the Flotilla success. Fishman also reports that recent rocket attacks from Gaza and Sinai on Israel appear to be independent action by Hamas’ military wing without approval from the political leaders – indicating a major internal power struggle. For this important peek at Hamas’ brutal rule, division and insecurities in Gaza, CLICK HERE.
Finally, American official turned scholar Elliot Abrams has a detailed look at the complex relationship between Israel and the Arab states given the over-arching regional problems of the ambitions of Iran and its allies. He says the overwhelming sentiment among Arab leaders behind closed doors is that they want Iran’s nuclear program bombed, by the US if possible, but Israel if not, and this is becoming more and more public. Abrams then reviews the relationship of various Arab states to Israel in this regard – from Saudia Arabia, to Lebanon to Egypt to the Gulf States, looking at the specific local complexities. For this important look at an oft-concealed reality in the region, CLICK HERE. On the other hand, Barry Rubin comments on a recent poll which shows Arab publics, unlike their leaders, want to see Iran get the bomb. He also had a recent good piece on the frequently facile arguments made that it is Israeli or Western policy that creates Middle Eastern radicalism.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Noted British academic Efraim Karsh on the declining importance of the Palestinian cause in the Arab world.
- Canadian academic and columnist Salim Mansur reports on resentments and divisions among Palestinians he encountered in a visit to Ramallah. Meanwhile, Canadian columnist Robert Fulford discusses the myths and politics of the Palestinian refugee problem.
- Former Israeli general turned academic Moshe Elad predicts that splits among Palestinians will prevent major progress toward peace if Israeli-Palestinian direct talks resume.
- Two Israeli legal experts determine the demand for a “Palestinian right of return” to Israel is legally baseless, and argue Israel should reject even symbolic recognition of it as part of a peace agreement.
- American law professor Peter Berkowitz looks in detail at the distortions and the ideological attempts to re-write international law in the UN’s Goldstone Report.
- Meanwhile, former law professor Anne Bayefsky looks at the troubles and disagreements surrounding the UN Secretary-General’s inquiry into the Gaza flotilla, with which Israel has agreed to cooperate .
- Thomas Friedman on the difference between delegitimisation of Israel and constructive criticism.
- Israeli intellectual Yoram Hazony has a new provocative and controversial essay on why he believes Europeans not only increasingly reject Israel’s legitimacy but are so prone to slurring Israeli behaviour as “Nazi.”
- A new detailed analysis of coverage of Israel in Britain’s Guardian, finding strong evidence of bias.
- An attack on a Japanese oil tanker last month has now been confirmed to have been an apparently al-Qaeda linked terror attack. Plus, Matthew Levitt analyses the latest US State Department annual report on global terrorism.
Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al presents Hamas’ ideological and strategic alternative to the PA’s approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre
August 8, 2010
Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al has recently presented Hamas’ ideological and strategic alternative to the PA’s approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He slammed the PLO leadership, denied the legitimacy of Israel, ruled out the negotiations with it in their present form, and called to follow the path of jihad and armed struggle.
1. Hamas’ political bureau chief Khaled Mash’al recently gave a belligerent, aggressive speech at the graduation ceremony of a summer camp organized by Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP-General Command in Damascus. In his speech, he called to continue jihad and the armed struggle, slammed the leadership of the PLO and the PA (“thugs”, “stuck on the path of negotiations”), and categorically denied any possibility of talks with Israel, claiming such negotiations would be illegitimate and could result in destruction and surrender to the Americans (see Appendix A for a summary of the speech).
2. Prior to that (July 21), Khaled Mash’al had granted a comprehensive programmatic interview (referred to on the Hamas website as “strategic”) to Al-Sabil, the Muslim Brotherhood mouthpiece in Jordan. In the interview, Mash’al discussed at length the issue of negotiations with Israel. He did not completely rule out negotiations “under certain circumstances”; however, he strictly opposed any talks (direct or indirect) in the current timing. According to Mash’al, the Palestinians should start negotiations from a position of power, “the product of jihad and resistance”, by which Israel could be forced to accept the Palestinian conditions. The current negotiations, said Mash’al, have been forced by the US and Israel and serve Israel instead of the Palestinians (see Appendix B for details).
3. In the Al-Sabil interview, Khaled Mash’al also completely ruled out any recognition of Israel. He did not, however, rule out a possible long-term ceasefire with Israel that would not involve recognizing Israel (it is our assessment that this reflects Khaled Mash’al’s attempt to set Hamas apart from Al-Qaeda and other radical jihad organizations).
4. He expressed Hamas’ keen interest in opening itself up to all the world’s countries and improving its foreign relations, provided it would not be contingent upon recognition of Israel. According to Mash’al, Hamas is aware of the fact that its refusal to recognize Israel and accept the Quartet’s conditions has a political price; however, that’s a price Hamas is ready to bear. Mash’al’s assumption is that, in the long run, Western countries and the international community as a whole will eventually need to cooperate with Hamas—that is, after they realize that reconciliation with Arab regimes has only short-term effects (see Appendix B for details).
5. It is likely that Khaled Mash’al’s belligerent rhetoric in the speech given to the summer camp graduates in Damascus was also motivated by the decision of the Arab League’s Monitoring Committee for the Arab Peace Initiative to endorse direct Israel-PA talks. Khaled Mash’al’s speech, and the interview to Al-Sabil, are a challenge by Hamas to the views of the PA, the Arab League, and pragmatic Arab countries, offering Hamas’ ideological and strategic alternative based on the path of jihad and “resistance” as a major factor in the conflict with Israel (even though Hamas does not completely rule out negotiations with Israel, provided they are conducted under the appropriate circumstances and from a Palestinian position of power).
6. The statements made by Khaled Mash’al are geared towards internal target audiences sharing a similar ideological concept (the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan) and a strategic stance based on jihad (the PFLP-General Command). The extremist, at times belligerent rhetoric directed by Khaled Mash’al towards those target audiences starkly contradicts the softened rhetoric (“smile attack”) he and other Hamas spokesmen often employ in interviews granted to Western media. In those interviews, Hamas spokesmen attempt to play down or conceal the ideology and strategy striving for the elimination of the State of Israel by means of terrorism (jihad, “resistance”), put up a pragmatic façade, attempt to market the idea of long-term ceasefire (mentioned by Mash’al in the interview granted to Al-Sabil), and portray the Palestinians as perpetual “victims” of the “aggression” of Israel and “regional and international forces”.1
7. Statements made by Khaled Mash’al (and other Hamas spokesmen) strongly reflect the tension between Hamas’ fundamental extremist views and its desire to improve relations with Western countries, achieve recognition of the movement itself and its administration at the expense of the PA, and to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel on the international scene (taking advantage of events viewed by Hamas as successful, such as the flotilla). At this point, however, it is the ideological foundations that have the upper hand in the struggle between radical Islamic ideology and pragmatic needs. In the interview granted to Al-Sabil, Khaled Mash’al stresses that despite the significance Hamas ascribes to broadening its international relations, it categorically refuses to accept the conditions stipulated by the Quartet, mainly recognition of Israel, being aware of the political price that comes with that refusal.
Summary of the speech given by Khaled Mash’al at the graduation ceremony of a summer camp organized by Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP-General Command (Al-Jazeera, August 2, 2010)
1 . On August 2, 2010, Khaled Mash’al gave a belligerent, aggressive speech at the graduation ceremony of a summer camp in Damascus organized by Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP-General Command. In the speech, he called to continue following the path of jihad and “resistance” (i.e., violence and terrorism) against Israel and expressed complete refusal to directly or indirectly negotiate with it.
2 . Following are the main points mentioned by Khaled Mash’al in his speech (Al-Jazeera, August 2):
a. Mash’al praised the summer camp graduates, saying they reflected the spirit of jihad, sacrifice, and struggle. “This is the way,” he said, “these camps, this younger generation, this gun, this training, these tents, these [training] grounds, this skill in using arms,2 this khaki-colored military uniform, this is the path…”
b. Mash’al ruled out the path of negotiations with Israel: “This path,” according to Mash’al, “will not lead to Palestine. Perhaps it will lead to Washington, perhaps it will lead to destruction, but it will certainly not lead to Palestine…” He further added, “there is no legitimacy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, be they direct or not, for such negotiations have been forced by the Americans and resulted from Israeli pressure.”
c. Mash’al proceeded to lash out against the PLO leadership for choosing the option of negotiations: “You thugs are stuck in the path of negotiations, and it is here that the independent decision is made under the protection offered by the gun”. According to Mash’al, that is the option that must be adhered to (i.e., “the protection by the gun”), even though some Palestinian organizations have strayed from it to choose the path of negotiations.
d. On Hamas’ commitment to the path of jihad: “We are not concerned about being called terrorists, since if our jihad is considered terrorism, then the detractors can say whatever they want. We are going to stick to jihad, resistance, and guns as the path towards liberation and return”. Khaled Mash’al once again stressed the adherence to the “option of resistance” and the “option of the gun” since “that is our path of might and honor”.
Interview granted by Khaled Mash’al to the Muslim Brotherhood organ in Jordan
1. On July 21, 2010, Al-Sabil, the Muslim Brotherhood organ in Jordan, published a comprehensive programmatic interview with Khaled Mash’al, defined on the Hamas website as a “strategic” interview. It was conducted by reporters Atef al-Julani and Hamza Timour. In the interview, Khaled Mash’al discussed at length the conflict with Israel, mainly the issue of its recognition and conducting negotiations with it. Following is a summary of the main issues discussed by Mash’al.
2. In the beginning of the interview, Khaled Mash’al was asked whether Hamas was opposed in principle to negotiations with Israel. He replied as follows:
a. In principle, there is no question that negotiations with enemies cannot be ruled out either legally or logically, particularly when there are temporary halts in the conflict which may call for negotiations. He added that negotiations in a conflict are acceptable and may be a legitimate tool under some circumstances (just as it might be unacceptable in others). He noted that negotiations with the enemies were held even at the time of Prophet Muhammad and Saladin; “However, [those negotiations were] part of a clear concept, a well-defined philosophy, and clear rules…” The main idea of that concept, which, according to Mash’al, is based on the Quran, is that negotiations must not be conducted as the only alternative, and must only be launched with “good bargaining chips”, “stemming from jihad, resistance, and might” (otherwise it is tantamount to surrender, according to Mash’al).
b. As far as the conflict with Israel is concerned, “the situation is different”. The difference being that Israel is an “alien entity planted in the region” which forced itself on its residents. Accordingly, that complicated and complex reality must be dealt with “in a precise, sensitive manner”. Even in such a reality, Khaled Mash’al does not completely rule out the possibility of negotiations with Israel. However, he says that such negotiations must only be conducted “when the time is right”, when it becomes necessary, when a “satisfactory level of balance and relative equality” has been achieved, and provided that the negotiations are a “tactical tool” as opposed to a “goal or permanent situation or strategic option”. Under such conditions, handled carefully, with “assertive rules” and at the right time, negotiations may prove useful; otherwise they would “only result in surrendering to the enemy and their conditions”.
c. As a result of that fundamental worldview, Khaled Mash’al strongly lashes out against those who negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians (i.e., the PA) and those Arabs who support the peace process (i.e., the Arab League and the pragmatic Arab countries). Mash’al lists a number of instances of what he considers as flaws in the negotiations as they are currently conducted. The major flaw is that the negotiations are conducted without the necessary “bargaining chips”, which would make it possible to force the enemy to accept the Palestinian conditions. In that context, Khaled Mash’al slams the negotiators with Israel over saying that they want peace and recognize Israel (recognition which was achieved in exchange for recognizing the PLO rather than the “rights of the Palestinian people”). According to Mash’al, the Palestinian negotiator must stress that if the negotiations reach a dead end, the Palestinians will be ready to go to “war, attrition, or resistance”. In Khaled Mash’al’s view, “negotiations are no substitute for resistance and the strategy of confrontation with the [Israeli] occupation,” being the basis for managing the conflict with Israel.
d. At this time, “in view of the existing balance of power”, negotiations are a “wrong option” as it would serve Israel and not the Palestinian side. The weakness of the Palestinians and the “imbalance of power” allow Israel to use the negotiations as a tool to improve its status and image in the international community and as a means to “earn more time and create a new reality on the ground by building settlements, deporting residents, building Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and destroying its [Arab] neighborhoods”. According to Mash’al, Israel also takes advantage of the negotiations for leverage to improve its relations with the Arab and Muslim world. Because of all those reasons, in Mash’al’s view, Israel is “the only party benefited by the negotiations in their present form”.
e. Arguing that the negotiations are ineffective, Mash’al issues a call to unite around the “project of resistance” (i.e., violence and terrorism). He stresses that it was no use “gambling” on the Americans (and others) on the Palestinian scene just as it was no use on the Iraqi, Afghan, and Iranian scenes (Iran in the Shah’s time). The alternative, according to Mash’al, is abandoning the program for (political) settlement and the Arab initiative, and strengthening the “resistance”, which is the tested, “true option”.
3. Other issues pertaining to the conflict with Israel which came up in Khaled Mash’al’s interview:
a. He completely rules out recognizing the legitimacy of Israel, even though Hamas does not ignore the fact that “there is an enemy called Israel”. In the view of Hamas, it is a “Zionist entity”, a “racist Zionist program which jeopardizes the interests of peoples and nations” and is a “foreign presence” in the Middle East. Khaled Mash’al stressed once again that the refusal to come to terms with the existence of the “Zionist entity” and to recognize its legitimacy are a “clear, definite principle of Hamas” and of the entire Palestinian people.
b. Hamas is in principle opposed to the conditions set by the Quartet and Western countries, even if those conditions are eased. That attitude is first and foremost the result of Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel, while being ready to bear the price for it. Khaled Mash’al noted: “This is what we are telling them [the Western delegations]: even though we are determined to develop ties with you and open up to all the countries in the world, we will not plead or beg the West to recognize us as Hamas. We are not interested in that”. Hamas, according to Mash’al, “does not look for legitimacy from the outside” but rather strives “to achieve recognition of Palestinian rights by force”.
c. Mash’al also discussed the building up of Hamas’ international relations and the place of those relations on Hamas’ political list of priorities. He is aware of the need to “market the Palestinian cause” and make friends and supporters of “Palestinian rights”. He said that the “Turkish flotilla” affair exposed the “ugly face” of Israel and demonstrated that “human conscience can be roused for the Palestinians”. According to Mash’al, Hamas’ foreign relations have been successful, but “there’s still a long way to go”. In that context, Khaled Mash’al mentioned the relations with Russia, countries in Latin America, and several other countries in Asia and Africa. He added that there are “unofficial relations (“under the table”, as Mash’al puts it) with some countries, including the US, through former top officials, who have relations with Hamas with the knowledge of current top officials in their countries. Hamas would like to build such relations “carefully and judiciously”, and not to rush things, in order to make gains for the Palestinian cause.
d. When asked why the international community and Israel objected to the long-term ceasefire proposed by Hamas, Mash’al listed several reasons, including: the belief that the Arabs and the Palestinians are a defeated side; “more tempting” ideas brought up by Arab and Palestinian elements (such as recognition of Israel in exchange for a solution based on the borders of 1967); and expectations that the Arabs could be subdued using more pressure. In what was perhaps a signal to the US and the West, Khaled Mash’al boasted that Hamas’ positions were “tougher” than those of other elements; however, he added, when Hamas takes a position, it makes efforts to implement it on the ground. According to Mash’al, Western countries and global structures of power will eventually have to cooperate with Hamas—that is, when they realize that reconciliation with Arab governments and Arab top officials can only have short-term results.
1 For a clear example of such softened rhetoric, see our September 23, 2009 Information Bulletin: “Hamas’ smile attack for the West: Ken Livingstone interviews Khaled Mashaal, a case study”.
2 A skill apparently acquired during the summer camp.
Hamas on killing spree in Gaza
Distressed Hamas in midst of massive hunt for collaborators, spree of executions in Strip
Ynet.com, August 9, 2010
News stories about bodies found at sea are occasionally published by Gaza newspapers. The number of such bodies isn’t huge, yet not all those drowning victims chose to go swimming voluntarily. The Gazans who found their death at sea include mid-level officials at sensitive government ministries, the Interior Ministry for example, alongside police and security officers.
Some of them were shot in the head before being sent on their swim.
There is a common denominator to these deaths: All of the victims were designated as traitors by the secret service of Hamas’ military wing in charge of counter-espionage and executed as collaborators.
And these are not just simple collaborators, but rather, people who penetrated deep into Hamas’ government; so deep that Hamas leaders are embarrassed to expose the failure and prefer to make these people disappear, with or without a brief court-martial.
‘Kids, turn in your parents’
Gaza’s streets are teeming with rumors. Stories of people who disappeared at sea or elsewhere stay on the agenda. The whole of Gaza, as if amok-stricken, takes part in the hunt. Posters urging a war on collaborators hang in the streets; the issue is discussed on the radio and during sermons at mosques. In the upcoming school year, the topic will be added to the curriculum, with Gaza children learning about the dangers inherent in collaborators. Teachers will be asked to explain what good, suspicious children do: Turn in their parents.
This huge manhunt is not a sign of strength, says a senior Israeli security official – the opposite is true. These are clear signs of distress for Hamas’ regime.
The more time passes from the Turkish flotilla and easing of the blockade, the more blurred Hamas’ achievements become. Despite some success stories, the list of failures is much longer: The group failed to breach the naval blockade, failed to breach the obstacle of global recognition (Hamas flirts with the Norwegians and Swiss, who make great promises without the ability to deliver,) and failed to breach the obstacle of Arab recognition. In fact, the Arab League recently permitted Mahmoud Abbas to embark on peace talks with Israel.
Indeed, Gaza residents get 30-40% more goods than they did before the flotilla and the standard of living is rising. However, they continue to live in a cage. They may have a little more food and enjoy a little more luxury, but it’s still a cage. Meanwhile, the religious pressure keeps building up inside the Strip. Religious laws are becoming stricter and expand: Beardless men feel unease, while women are not allowed to smoke nargilas and must don a burqa, and so on. Gaza’s streets are becoming Iran-like, to the chagrin of many Strip residents.
Old Palestinian complex
In late May, three people were publically executed after spending long months in jail and being accused of collaboration with the Shin Bet. Shortly thereafter, Hamas announced “40 days of mercy” where all collaborators were urged to turn themselves in and win a pardon. Twenty people complied with the request. During these 40 days, Hams sent thousands of text messages, urging their recipients to come clean and promising that they will be granted amnesty.
The 40 days ended on July 10th. Hamas granted the undecided another 24 hours, and immediately after that – and up until now – embarked on a major campaign of arrests and manhunts for the people blacklisted by the counter-espionage unit. This unit, which reports directly and exclusively to Ahmed Jabari and Mohammad Deif, comprises professionals who were trained not only in Syria and Iran. The Gaza “students” undergo orderly courses on espionage and counter-espionage, learning among other things about coded communication systems. For example, they are being taught about the alleged breach of Lebanese phone networks by Israel.
The manhunt for collaborators follows the lessons drawn in the wake of Operation Cast Lead. Hamas was surprised to discover how deeply it was exposed to Israel’s intelligence services and decided to address the problem. Israel would do well to understand that despite what we want to think, both Hamas and Hezbollah excel at drawing lessons. For example, any cell that is nabbed and jailed by Israel undergoes a debriefing with the help of more veteran prisoners: How were we nabbed? Who screwed us over? The conclusions are disseminated once they’re reached.
Collaboration with Israel or with other foreign elements is an old Palestinian complex. The number of Palestinian collaborators throughout history is immense. The sociologists within the intelligence community attribute this phenomenon to the culture of survival. The next phase in the manhunt for collaborators will be public trials, to open simultaneously to more waves of arrests
It is impossible to estimate the extent of the damage to be suffered by Israel – if at all – as result of the campaign, yet it appears that Israel contributed quite a bit to the launch of the manhunt. Following Operation Cast Lead, security officials here boasted that each IDF division commander was escorted by a Shin Bet man who provided real-time intelligence information elicited from Palestinian sources. The stories about real-time alerts regarding snipers, roadside bombs, or ambushes infuriated Hamas.
In retrospect, the Israeli boastfulness came at the expense of live agents in the field. Meanwhile, these days too, when the Air Force strikes a building and kills a terror suspect, we can assume that someone pinpointed the location and the suspect. Sometimes, technology just isn’t enough.
Hamas power struggle
Meanwhile, Hamas’ frustration already comes with a price: The recent rockets fired at Ashkelon and Sderot were shot by Hamas’ military wing, without notifying the group’s political leadership. There is no doubt that this fire aimed to destroy the calm and reignite the conflict against Israel.
Hamas’ military wing, headed by Ahmed Jabari, is embroiled in a dispute over the proper struggle strategy with the political leadership, headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The political, pragmatic leadership prefers a PR struggle in the international arena. The Turkish flotilla boosted this camp considerably, but two months have passed since then and the military arm is pressing for an end to the impasse, arguing that time plays in Israel favor.
The Air Force’s response to the latest rocket attacks was harsh enough to make it clear to Hamas’ political branch that Israel has no interest in the stories about Haniyeh’s inability to contain the military wing. The Hamas leader realizes that the response to the next rocket attack would exact an even higher price. For now it appears that the message was received and that the calm shall prevail. If it doesn’t, the IDF is preparing an even more painful blow.
However, Hamas suffered a greater embarrassment following the delusional rocket attack on Eilat, which ended up killing and wounding people in Jordan’s Aqaba of all places. Last time Jabari and his men carried out such attack, in April, nobody claimed responsibility. It took Egypt a few days to admit the attacks originated in its territory, and now it faces a problem: How to explain to Hamas that one does not play games with Egypt or pushes it into a corner?
The immediate slap to the face was sustained by Hamas’ military leadership, which seeks ways to resume its dialogue with Egypt. Mubarak will not forgive the embarrassment he suffered, and Jabari’s gamble may cost Hamas dearly.
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The Enemy of My Enemy
Facing the threat of a nuclear Iran, the hostile Arab-Israeli relationship is giving way to a more complex picture
By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
Wall Street Journal, AUGUST 6, 2010
Being an Arab leader has its rewards: the suite at the Waldorf-Astoria during the United Nations General Assembly, travel in your own plane, plenty of cash, even job security—whether kings, sheiks or presidents, with or without elections, most serve for life.
But the advantages must seem dwarfed by the problems that face the Arab world this summer. The Shia in Iran seem to be building a bomb, Iran’s ally Syria is taking over Lebanon (again), Yemen is collapsing (again), Egypt’s President Mubarak is said to be dying and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is back on the front pages.
What’s more, no one is sure who’s in charge these days. The American hegemony, in place at least since the British left Aden in 1967 and secured through repeated, massive military operations of its own and victories by its ally Israel, seems to be fraying. Who will stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program, the Arabs wonder; they place no faith in endless negotiations between earnest Western diplomats and the clever Persians.
Israel is the enemy of their enemy, Iran. Now, the usual description of Arab-Israeli relations as “hostile” or “belligerent” is giving way to a more complex picture. Following the joint Arab military efforts to prevent the formation of the Jewish State in 1948, and the wars that followed in 1956, 1967 and 1973, this is a bizarre turn of events. Israel is as unpopular in the Arab street as it has been in past decades (which is to say, widely hated), but for Arab rulers focused on the Iranian threat all those the Israeli Air Force jets must now appear alluring. The Israeli toughness the Arabs have complained about for over a half century is now their own most likely shield against Iran.
The Arab view that someone should bomb Iran and stop it from developing nuclear weapons is familiar to anyone who meets privately with Arab leaders, especially in the Gulf. Now, the curtain is being pulled back: Just last month, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, spoke publicly of a “cost-benefit analysis” and concluded that despite the upset to trade that would result and the inevitable “people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country,” the balance was clear. The ambassador told an Aspen audience, “If you are asking me, ‘Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran?’ my answer is still the same: ‘We cannot live with a nuclear Iran.’ I am willing to absorb what takes place.” By speaking of “an outside force,” Ambassador Al Otaiba did not specifically demand U.S. action; he left the door open for volunteers.
And two weeks ago, the Israeli press carried reports of a visit to Saudi Arabia by Gen. Meir Dagan, chief of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency; Gen. Dagan is the point man on Iran for the Israeli government. This follows stories in the Times of London two months ago claiming that the Saudis would suspend their air defense operations to permit Israeli fighter planes to cross Saudi air space en route to an attack on Iran.
All this will be denied, of course, as it has always been, but Arab-Israeli (and for that matter, Arab-Palestinian) relations remain far more complicated than headlines suggest. Even in states where there are no politics as we know it—there are no elections or the outcomes are decided by fiat in the presidential palace—all politics is local, and concerns about the Palestinians take a back seat to national and personal interests. The minuet now being conducted by Arab foreign ministers with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is illuminating.
The issue is whether the Palestinians should move to direct negotiations with Israel, in place of the desultory “proximity talks” that have been led by U.S. envoy George Mitchell. Mr. Abbas has been very reluctant to make this decision, fearing venomous criticism from Hamas and wondering if direct talks would actually lead anywhere except to a further crisis down the road if and when they break down. Mr. Abbas has been laying down preconditions that make talks harder and harder to begin, asking in essence that the U.S. guarantee an outcome he likes on the central matters (refugees, borders, Jerusalem) before he will sit down at the table. Despite heavy American and European pressure, Mr. Abbas has been unwilling to decide anything. In fact, reversing years of effort by his predecessor Yasser Arafat to escape the tutelage of Arab states, he threw the ball to them. He would do whatever the Arab League told him to do.
But the Arab foreign ministers, meeting two weeks ago in Cairo, proved to be as wily as he. They decided to endorse direct talks, but with preconditions—and they left the timing to the Palestinians, thus leaving Mr. Abbas on his own. Their decision was to make Mr. Abbas bear any blame associated with the decision, while they ducked and returned to their hotel suites. They are for peace and talks with Israel, and they are helping the Americans, and they are backing their Palestinian brothers, unless of course things go sour, in which case it will be clear that Mr. Abbas made the wrong decision to enter (or not to enter) direct talks. All this under the guise of “Arab solidarity.”
There isn’t much solidarity this summer. For Syria, the only issue right now is regaining hegemony in Lebanon, and Syria is aligned with Iran and Hezbollah. Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Beirut a week ago for the first time since Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2005—a fitting symbol of the return of Syrian power.
But Syria’s border with Israel remains dead quiet, for the regime seeks no direct confrontation. The last time it moved to assert a leadership role in the region, by the secret construction of a nuclear reactor with designs supplied by North Korea, Israel bombed the site to smithereens in September 2007. So Syria arms Hezbollah, menaces the Lebanese and watches to see how the Americans will handle Iran. There will be no serious negotiations over the Golan Heights until the Iran issue is settled, for any Golan deal would require that Syria break with Iran—and such a move depends entirely on whether the regime there is rising or falling in influence.
For Lebanon, divided as ever among Sunni, Shia, Christian and Druze, the main concern is the forthcoming decision of the international tribunal investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Will it name Syria or Hezbollah, the Shia terrorist group that controls much of the country? And how will Hariri’s son Saad, now prime minister, balance the need for stability against the desire for justice?
The fact that Mr. Assad of Syria arrived a week ago in a Saudi jet and accompanied by the Saudi King, Abdullah, shows Lebanese that Saudi support for their independence is a thing of the past. The Saudi message was clear: Make your own arrangements with Damascus and do not count on us. Until this week, the Lebanese border with Israel had been quiet since the 2006 war—Hezbollah and its Shia supporters were hurt badly enough to avoid a repetition. For months there have been rumors of war this summer along the Israeli-Lebanon border, but that was never in the cards. Hezbollah, whose well-trained terrorists and rockets aimed at Israel’s cities are supplied or financed by Iran, could attack Israel if Israel bombs Iran’s nuclear sites. Thus Hezbollah’s forces are both a deterrent to an Israeli attack, and a way for Iran to strike back at Israel if an attack occurs—an Iranian second-strike capability. The ayatollahs need Hezbollah intact and ferocious to scare the Israelis, so another Israel-Hezbollah war that might badly wound the Shia group is the last thing Tehran wants right now.
The incident last Tuesday, when Lebanese Army snipers shot into Israel, killing one Israeli officer and wounding another, is still not fully understood. It appears to be the work of the Lebanese commander in that area, a Shia considered close to Hezbollah. Perhaps the attack was his own nasty idea; perhaps Hezbollah ordered him to do it, using the Lebanese Army to change the subject away from the tribunal. Either way it is a reminder that Lebanon is not a normal country with an army under government control. It is a battlefield largely controlled by Syria and Hezbollah, and unable to determine its own fate.
For Egypt, there is one worry: Mr. Mubarak’s health. With a presidential election coming in the fall of 2011, will his 30 years in power (since Sadat’s assassination in 1981) end with a free election, or will the ill, 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak demand another term or the installation of his son Gamal as his successor? Meanwhile, Egypt’s dominance of Arab diplomacy and its overall influence in the region are declining steadily. The Arab League is still headquartered there, but it was symbolic of Egypt’s diminished status that the key figure in the foreign ministers’ meeting held there last week was Hamad bin Jassem of Qatar, the rich Gulf sheikdom with about 350,000 citizens, not Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt, with a population of 80 million.
At stake in the succession crisis in Egypt is not simply who will rule the country, but whether a new president will maintain Egypt’s chilly but reliable peace with Israel. Here too there are shared enemies, in this case Hamas and other Palestinian radical and terrorist groups; Israel and Egypt have maintained together (though with Israel shouldering 99% of the blame) a blockade on Gaza since the Hamas coup there in 2007.
The Egyptian regime feels no love for the Israelis, but there is significant security cooperation between the two countries; Egypt’s rulers see the Shia in Iran, not the Jewish state, as the more dangerous threat to Arab power in the region. Egypt’s decisions in late July to bar an Iranian Red Crescent ship carrying aid to Gaza from entering the Suez Canal and to prevent four Iranian parliamentarians from crossing the border into Gaza are the most recent proof of this Egyptian attitude.
Whatever Egypt’s concerns about Iran, fears are far greater in the Gulf. Seen from those shores, the Palestinians are a constant drain on the pocketbook and, with Al Jazeera stirring things up through constant broadcasts depicting Israeli violence and Palestinian misery, a source of popular dissatisfaction. Israeli-Palestinian violence is poison for regimes that are concerned above all else with survival, and the “peace process” is a much-sought antidote. Everyone loves conferences that suggest “progress,” though as the decisions at the recent Arab League meeting show, everyone will seek to avoid the hard decisions that serious negotiations might necessitate.
The Palestinian issue has been with them for decades and may last decades more; the rise of Iran is new and pressing, given its proximity—and the existence of a Shia majority in Bahrain and a significant Shia population in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern province. It is not difficult to think of Iranian pressure, money and even guns leading to riots and violent uprisings.
The Gulf regimes have long relied on American protection, and the U.S. maintains large bases in the UAE, Bahrain (the Fifth fleet’s headquarters), Qatar and Kuwait. For these regimes and for the Saudis, Iran is a constant threat and the issue of the day is who will be, to use the old British phrase, “top country” in the region. Repeated American offers to negotiate with Iran, and statements from Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates respectively that an attack on Iran would be “incredibly destabilizing” or “disastrous” do not reassure them. They want Iran stopped. They are not sure the need to do that is understood as well in Washington as it is in Jerusalem—and at Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Perhaps the enemy of my enemy is not my friend, if he is an Israeli pilot. In that case, all gestures of friendship will be forsaken or carefully hidden; there will be denunciations and UN resolutions, petitions and boycotts, Arab League summits and hurried trips to Washington. But none of that changes an essential fact of life well understood in many Arab capitals this summer: that there is a clear coincidence of interests between the Arab states and Israel today, in the face of the Iranian threat. Given the 60 years of war and cold peace between Israel and the Arabs, this is one of the signal achievements of the regime in Tehran—and could prove to be its undoing.
—Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.